Jails at Last Start to Empty

The U.S. rate of incarceration in prison has been dropping for five straight years. As I have written about before, the size of the jail population has been dropping for most of the same period, but less consistently because of California’s realignment policy, which expanded its massive jail population. Some recent revisions to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics provide further evidence that jails are at last starting to empty out.

The revised report includes new information on “rated capacity” in U.S. jails, a measure of how many inmates can be held at one time. Astonishingly, after first being measured in 1982, this figure went up every single year for the next four decades. The break in the trend finally came in 2013, when national jail capacity fell by about 5,000 beds. Numerically, this is a small change, but after 40 years of unbroken increases, it’s a bellwether.

These national statistics resonate with recent on-the-ground reporting on counties and cities that are trying to sell off jails that they can no longer fill with inmates. Some localities are looking to sell off entire jail facilities, but I’d rather they use them to reduce their prison population. States could be pay counties and cities to take less dangerous prisoners into local facilities closer to their families. On the front end, empty jail cells are ideal for implementing swift, certain and fair community supervision programs that can serve as an alternative to being sent to prison for offenders with drug and alcohol problems.

International Cost-Shifting and Political Strategy

UK Bill

The British taxpayer just got an unpleasant surprise. The EU obligates member states with stronger economies to pay more of the EU’s budget than do members who have weaker economies. Having crunched a bunch of revised current and past economic figures, the green eyeshade wearers in Brussels have announced that some countries are due money back and others must pony up more. As the above chart shows, many countries are affected, but most of the action can be summed up simply: The Brits are being touched for over 2 billion Euros, which will fund hefty rebates for the French and Germans.

Whether the revised economic figures are more accurate than the early versions (which would mean Britain is simply being asked to make up for a getting an overly sweet deal in prior years) or whether they are less accurate (which would mean Britain is being mulcted) is beyond my ken. What I find more interesting is how European policy making might change if those who want the EU to be more centralized and powerful succeed in their wish to make equalization payments like these much larger and more frequent.

Politicians are always tempted to give voters more in services than they charge them in taxes, while sticking non-voters with the resulting debt (e.g., children and generations yet unborn). This can clearly work politically, but there is always a risk that voters will eventually notice how much their grandchildren are struggling and begin to hold the political class accountable. The perfect solution for this problem for integrity-free pols is to create international agreements such that the debt burden caused by undertaxation (or if you prefer, overspending) is shifted to people who will never be able to kick them out of office: Voters in other countries.

Imagine a EU centralizer’s dream world in which the equalization payments in question were 50 times what they are today. If you were running a country where the work week is capped at 35 hours, the retirement age is 60 and employees are only expected to come to work 26 weeks a year (the rest of the time, they would be on holiday or on strike), you would eventually be punished by the electorate for delivering little or no economic growth. But if you are in international equalization payment agreements with other countries in which cultural norms and labor rules are such that people work much harder and produce more economic growth, you might be more inclined to lower your own country’s retirement age or the number of allowed hours of work per week. Your own citizens would be happier, and your treasury would get a big check each year from other countries. And if the countries who are paying your bills are historical rivals of yours, so much the sweeter — perhaps even a vote winner if handled properly.

Chart courtesy of The Daily Mail

Weekend Film Recommendation: Suspiria

suspiria-Technicolor Halloween is almost here, so I will keep the chills coming again this week by recommending Dario Argento’s ultra-stylish, ultra-bloody and ultra nerve-jangling 1977 movie Suspiria. If it’s possible to make a slasher film for the art house set, this is it.

The plot: American dancer Suzy Bannion (An intrepid and likeable Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany to attend an exclusive ballet school. Everything at the bizarrely designed and decorated school is wrong from the very first, with students disappearing, teachers engaging in strange behavior and an atmosphere of menace suffusing every room. As Suzy begins to investigate her mysterious surroundings, she comes to suspect that some supernatural evil is at the heart of the school and that it will not rest until she is destroyed.

If you judge horror films in the most elemental way, i.e., how scared will I be?, this is a classic of the horror genre. In ways large and small, Argento keeps the audience on edge with very little relief. Much of this is accomplished through an invasive, eerie score, extensive use of anamorphic lenses and other camera trickery, madcap set design and a vivid color scheme (with the accent on red of course…). Even the second time through when I knew what was going to happen, I was still holding my breath and tensing my muscles as I rooted for Suzy to overcome the extraordinary dangers she confronts.

Argento made his bones in a subgenre of Italian film called giallo, and one can see those influences here. However, while giallo is often criticized for its typical sexist plot set-ups (e.g., violent powerful man terrorizes and kills hapless young females), in Suspiria the redoubtable characters — good and bad — are all women. And while there is some astonishingly over-the-top gore, suspense is created much more through mood than through a mere parade of on screen violence.

All that said, the script of the film is remarkably uneven. Certain scenes emerge from nowhere and plot points come and go. For example, a young man at the school shows interest in Suzy and the audience wonders whether a romance will develop. Will he help her survive the terrors she faces? But like other story threads in the film, this one vanishes with no explanation. Maybe the editor was in a slashy mood himself, but I suspect these discontinuities are simply the result of Argento being more interested in theatrics than the underlying story.

In that respect, Suspiria reminds me of no film more than John Stahl’s famous “Technicolor noir” Leave Her to Heaven. Both movies overcome numerous script problems with incredible sets, atmospheric music, intentionally overstated color schemes and a strong leading female performance. Though different in other ways, both prove that sometimes in cinema, style really can triumph over substance. That’s certainly the case for Suspiria, making it ideal Halloween viewing for those who are not faint of heart.

Catching a Catfish

In The Guardian, Kathleen Hale offers her riveting tale story of tracking down an Internet troll who turns out to be a catfish. At one point, she makes a powerful observation on the psychology of those who troll:

Why do hecklers heckle? Recent studies have had dark things to say about abusive internet commenters – a University of Manitoba report suggested they share traits with child molesters and serial killers. The more I wondered about Blythe, the more I was reminded of something Sarah Silverman said in an article for Entertainment Weekly: “A guy once just yelled, ‘Me!’ in the middle of my set. It was amazing. This guy’s heckle directly equalled its heartbreaking subtext – ‘Me!’” Silverman, an avid fan of Howard Stern, went on to describe a poignant moment she remembers from listening to his radio show: one of the many callers who turns out to be an asshole is about to be hung up on when, just before the line goes dead, he blurts out, in a crazed, stuttering voice, “I exist!”.

It’s the best essay I’ve read in awhile, and is sparking debate about the ethics of the author and the troll. Check it out here.

Nudgefail: The Case of Organ Donation

Behavioral economics is cool science with numerous applications. The concept of nudges, for example requiring newly hired workers to sign a form to stop automatic retirement contributions rather than having to sign a form to start them, is certainly useful in many contexts. But as I write in Washington Post’s Wonkblog, it can’t solve some problems, including the shortage of organ donations, which leaves over 120,000 Americans on the waiting list:

One commonly proposed solution to the organ shortage derives from behavioral economic “nudge” principles. Rather than requiring Americans to complete paperwork in order to opt-in to donation at death, the country could shift to the European model of presuming that donation at death was acceptable. But Tom Mone, chief executive of OneLegacy, the nation’s largest organ and tissue recovery organization, points out that “The recovery rate for deceased donors in the United States is actually better than that of European nations with presumed consent laws. The United States rigorously follows individual donor registrations whereas presumed consent countries actually defer to family objections.”

What this means on the ground, as Tom explained to me and our audience at a recent Stanford Health Policy Forum, is that when European health professionals show up to harvest organs from a newly dead individual, that person’s family often says “no way”, nudges be damned. The state could legally take the person’s organs by force of course, but unsurprisingly it does not. In contrast, in the US opt-in model, both families and the state respect the deceased donor’s wishes because they know they were the result of a proactive decision rather than a bureaucratically-designed nudge. More simply, an active choice has legitimacy that a nudged choice does not

Consider Staying in the Closet

Three phrases I am tired of hearing in the media: “Breaks his/her silence”, “the last taboo” and “comes out of the closet”. The first appears regularly on the magazines at the supermarket checkout. Magazine covers trumpet for example that — at last! — a 3rd rate television star is “breaking his silence” over the failure of his marriage to a 4th rate country and western singer. The implication is that the breaking of the blessed silence is a gift to the world and we should be grateful, but I wish these people would just shut up. Why should strewing intimate details of one’s life be laudable? And why should anyone care about these incontinent bores in the first place?

“The last taboo” and “coming out of the closet” have a parallel existence in journalism. When gay people came out of the closet it was courageous and remarkable. Today, these phrases adorn stories about people — elderporn enthusiasts, those who admit to being beautiful, people who pay to increase traffic to their website, people who hang glide in their underwear — whose coming out is neither dangerous nor it has to be said particularly interesting. Calling them taboo-breakers is at one level media hype and at another, cultural self-congratulation, as if as a society we are only getting more mature as we let underwear-clad hang gliders tell their heretofore hidden story to the world, even though it will no doubt rattle the foundations of the establishment (or at least annoy our parents).

Most of human existence is simply not that interesting and certainly not newsworthy. And in an era where everyone is tweeting what they had for breakfast, being filmed by covert keyhole cameras, putting photos of their latest drinking binge on Facebook and having their naked selfies released from the iCloud, even the most modestly engaging stuff in our lives is being over-shared. We’ve wiped out even more “last taboos” than we have #2 men in Al Qaeda.

This makes me think that the true radicals today, the ones who are actually taking a risk, are those who refuse to dish out their personal details to the world. To those of you who keep something in your life — anything — out of public view, let me express my respect and thanks. May others follow your brave example of staying in the closet.

Now that I am done ranting, I am going to go do a bunch of things that I refuse to reveal here.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Murder by the Clock

vlcsnap-2575882Halloween month on RBC is devoted to movies about ghoulies, ghosties, long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. This week, I offer an admittedly off-beat film recommendation from the early days of talkies: 1931′s Murder by the Clock.

The plot centers on the Endicotts, a wealthy family in decline. The parsimonious matriarch of the clan, Julia Endicott (Blanche Friderici), lives in fear of a Poe-style premature burial and laments the fact that her direct heir is a musclebound half-wit (Irving Pichel, in a quasi-Frankenstein Monster sort of role). Julia reluctantly decides to leave the family fortune to her drunken, ne’er do well nephew (Walter McGrail). But his scheming, sexually voracious wife (Lilyan Tashman) isn’t in a mood to wait for Julia to die of natural causes, and begins using her considerable feminine wiles to get multiple men to work her evil will. Murders and mystery ensue.

Fair warning: Movie sound technology was not well-developed when this film was made. Microphones on the set were few in number, often in fixed positions and of low quality. As a result, actors had to talk more slowly and clearly and not move around too much as they did so. This understandably comes across as stilted to modern audiences. But as with the famous Lugosi/Browning Dracula which came out the same year, if you can let those limits of early talkies go and just enjoy a scary story well told, Murder by the Clock will greatly entertain you.

62-lilyan-tashman-554x417In style and plot, this film is an agreeable cross between the haunted house pictures of prior years and the monster movies that were just becoming popular (like Dracula, Frankenstein also came out in 1931). The other enormous appeal of the movie is the campy, vampy work of Tashman, in a part that screams “pre-Hays Code”. Dressed in a series of outfits that leave little to the imagination she sexually disables virtually every male character in the story (Tashman was apparently a sexual dynamo in real life as well, though her energies were usually directed at women rather than men, allegedly including Greta Garbo). Tashman has a lot of fun going way over the top and it’s intentionally funny for the audience too, as were many of the classic monster movies of the 1930s.

The atmospheric photography is another asset of Murder by the Clock, and amplifies the mood effectively. That’s a credit to Karl Struss, one of the first famous cinematographers, who worked with many of the early giants: Murnau, Griffith, DeMille and Chaplin. Struss gives fans of scary movies what they want: eerie shots of dusty secret corridors, foggy graveyards, and killers skulking through abundant shadows

If you just can’t stand the technically-imposed limitations of early talkies, this movie is not for you. But otherwise Murder by the Clock offers creepy, campy fun for the Halloween season as well as being of historical interest for its look and pre-Hays code salaciousness.

p.s. Pachel went on to direct an ever better pre-Hays code film that I recommended here two years ago, The Most Dangerous Game. Note also that Murder by the Clock is in the public domain, and you ought to be able to find it for free online.

How UKIP Differs from the Tea Party

Americans who have heard of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) often assume that its members are roughly analogous to those of the U.S. Tea Party, i.e., disaffected conservatives who want the right-most party to move even further right. Some excellent political journalism has shown this is not correct, and a remarkable election result this past week underscores the point.

The setting was Heywood and Middleton, a Mancunian constituency in which Labour politicians have literally never lost a parliamentary election. I was acquainted with the late Jim Dobbin, who used to represent this pocket district, and he was with respect neither a scintillating orator nor entirely in step with many of his constituents on some social issues. But still, he was Labour, so like his predecessors he too always won, and by large margins.

Given this context, it is remarkable indeed that Jim’s Labour Party replacement almost lost the by-election to a UKIP candidate. In the 4 years since the last parliamentary election, UKIP increased its vote-share by a stunning 15-fold. If UKIP were truly just a party of disaffected Tories, this simply could not have happened in a Labour stronghold.

Ian Warren of Election Data blog did some revealing shoeleather reporting and data crunching regarding how UKIP did so well. He posted this photo of a UKIP voting neighborhood (that’s an “estate”, i.e., public housing) and pointed out that its not exactly the dwelling place of the horse and hound set.

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Now take a moment to consider whether you think UKIP are just a problem for the Conservatives. Because this doesn’t look like a Conservative area to me. And consider that in May of this year UKIP took 42.3% of the vote here…..on these streets. Because at some stage somebody in Labour high command is going to need to explain to me how on earth they find themselves in a position where their bedrock supporters, the believers in ‘good old religion’ as I heard John McTernan call them last week, have simply stopped believing.

His whole analysis is worth reading. It reinforces my sense that the 2015 UK election is “everyone’s to lose”, by which I mean that, given the fracturing of old alliances and perspectives in the UK, there is an excellent chance that regardless of who wins, the majority of people who went to the polls are going to feel alienated from the new government from day one.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Grip of the Strangler

haunted_strangler_poster_02Following Johann’s recommendation of Manhunter last week, I keep our RBC Halloween month tradition alive by focusing in the coming weeks on horror films. When Jean Kent died late last year, I decided to watch one of her films that I had never seen, and came away happy that I did. In one of her many roles as a naughty British lass, Kent is a chanteuse/madam threatened by a serial killer apparently risen from the grave in this week’s film recommendation: Grip of the Strangler (aka The Haunted Strangler).

This 1958 film has a wonderful backstory involving Boris Karloff. Alex and Richard Gordon grew up loving Karloff in the classic Universal horror films made before the war. When the Gordons were young adults, Karloff’s cinema stardom had faded but he was still working on the London stage. The two fanboys approached their idol, and ever the gentlemen, Karloff treated them kindly. When the great man was 70, the Gordons had the chance they had always dreamed of to produce a movie for him.

kentThe plot is spooky and engaging, mixing elements of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jack the Ripper and even Frankenstein. You can also see the beginnings of a return to sexual explicitness in British cinema here, particularly in the scenes in Kent’s bawdyhouse (the champagne spill scene with pinup model Vera Day has to be seen to be disbelieved). But those elements work well in the story, which concerns a moralistic late-Victorian Era social reformer (Karloff) who believes a strangler of attractive women is still at large in the streets of London. He’s a hothouse flower of a man who faints when he sees abuse of prisoners, is terrified of rats and is extremely ill at ease interacting with a woman of Kent’s sensually confident ilk. Yet he is also unaccountably obsessed with the strangler’s brutal sex crimes.

It’s not a big budget film, but you largely wouldn’t know it. Director Robert Day started his career as a cinematographer and clearly learned how to use shadows, fog and lighting to keep the audience from noticing any economies in set design and art direction. The professionalism of the cast helps a good deal too. There are some actors who can’t seem to do a B-movie without somehow conveying to their fans “wink wink, I’m phoning in my part just so you know I’m above all this”. But such self-indulgence was unheard of in this era of British film and the result is a much better movie.

Kent is clearly at home in her showy part, even though it is unfortunately smaller than it could have been. Karloff is nothing less than brilliant, conveying the admixture of desire and repression, rage and sadness present in his character.

This is not a widely-known film outside of the horror film buff community. But it has captured some important supporters, most notably The Criterion Collection, who have made a pristine print available for you to enjoy.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

p.p.s. SPOILER ALERT: Karloff’s physical transformation is even more impressive when you learn that he did it without makeup!